With so many different formula milk brands on the market, how do you know which one to choose for your baby? Are the more expensive ones better? Find out everything you need to know here
Watch our video for information about formula milk.
What is infant formula?
Infant formula is intended as a substitute for parents who cannot or decide not to breastfeed their babies. Its formula aims to mimic the nutritional composition of breast milk (Martin et al, 2016).
Is powdered or ready-made formula better?
Infant formula normally comes in two different forms: a dry powder that you mix with water, or a ready to feed liquid formula. There is little compositional difference between the two but ready to feed milks tend to be more expensive and use more packaging (Martin, 2016; NHS Choices, 2016; Crawley, 2018; Crawley and Westland, 2019). The ingredients used vary between manufacturers, and there might also be differences from batch to batch.
What ingredients are in infant formula?
Most infant milks start with a base of cows’ milk or goats’ milk as skimmed or full-fat, liquid or powder, or using demineralised whey protein concentrates. Lactose or other carbohydrates, vegetable, fish and other oils, vitamins and minerals are all added to the milk base (Crawley and Westland, 2019).
The basic components of any infant milk, regardless of the format (powder or ready-to-feed), are proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals (Crawley and Westland, 2019). The major infant formula producers develop their own brands with a combination of each of these components. You can see a full list of constituents on the packaging for infant formula milk for babies (Crawley, 2018).
Which formula milk nutrients are best?
If a substance has proven benefits for your baby and can be added to infant formula, the law requires it to be added to all formula (Crawley, 2018). So buying a more expensive brand of formula does not mean that your baby will grow or develop better than if you were buying a cheaper one. The basic nutritional profile of the majority of infant milks is actually very similar (NHS Choices, 2016; Crawley and Westland, 2019).
In the UK, the ingredients in infant formula are strictly regulated and each manufacturer must follow strict national and EU guidelines on composition (Martin, 2016). Formula producers have to add formula milk components in accordance with the regulatory framework of the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 2007. They also have to comply with any relevant changes to those regulations and to regulations around foods for special medical purposes.
Which formula milk is best?
For a healthy, full-term baby, it really doesn’t matter which brand you choose. They all make various claims and have different ingredients. Yet regardless of their cost, like we said, all brands have to meet the same nutritional and safety standards and have a relatively similar composition (Martin, 2016; Crawley, 2018).
First Steps Nutrition Trust has more information here on the different brands of formula milk available in the UK and their ingredients. We also have an article here about the different types of formula milk.
Can I change the formula my baby has?
Traditionally, parents were advised to stick to one brand, but there’s no good evidence that changing does any harm (NHS Choices, 2016; Crawley, 2018). You can try different formulas to see which your baby might prefer in case the small variations in ingredients have an effect.
As manufacturers sometimes change ingredients slightly from batch to batch, it may be that one brand no longer agrees with your baby. Do talk to your healthcare professional if you’d like to change brands (NHS, 2016). A few babies may do better with a special formula instead of the regular kind but this needs medical advice.
Is formula vegetarian or vegan?
Only certain formulas are vegetarian as many contain fish oils and/or animal rennet. Information on suitable formulas is available here from First Steps Nutrition trust.
Soya-based formulas are suitable for vegetarians but are not recommended for babies under six months old except under medical supervision (Crawley and Westfield, 2019). There are currently no infant milks suitable for vegans in the UK as even those without animal proteins contain vitamin D from sheep’s wool.
It is recommended that those who follow a vegan diet breastfeed throughout the first year of life and can move their children onto a non-animal milk at one year of age (Crawley and Westfield, 2019). Parents who want to bring up their children as vegans should seek medical advice to ensure their nutritional needs are being met (Crawley and Westfield, 2019).
How does formula milk compare to breastmilk for my baby’s health?
When formula is prepared safely, it provides babies with the nutrients they need to grow and develop (Martin, 2016; Crawley and Westfield, 2019). Yet formula milk cannot offer many of the same health benefits as breastfeeding, such as protection from infections and other illnesses (Martin, 2016). This is because living cells, hormones and friendly bacteria cannot be replicated by a man-made process (Crawley, 2018).
Can I use formula and continue to breastfeed?
If you continue to breastfeed as well as feed formula, your breastmilk will continue to offer benefits to your baby (Crawley, 2018). Milk supply is generally driven by frequent, effective breastfeeding. Giving your baby formula can have an impact on this, because it may mean your baby breastfeeds less often, and therefore you make less milk.
Read our article about mixed feeding to find out more. You may also find it useful to talk through your options with your midwife, health visitor or breastfeeding counsellor. You can also contact one of our friendly and knowledgeable breastfeeding counsellors by calling our Infant Feeding Support Line on 0300 330 0700. They’re open between 8am and midnight every day.
How do I make up powdered formula?
As powdered formula is not sterile, it is important that it’s made up correctly each time, using boiled water that has cooled for no more than 30 minutes. To kill any bacteria within the powder, it is important that the water is at least 70⁰C (NHS, 2016).
Safe preparation is key – all formula have to be made using the right amount of powder as diluting or using too much powder could make your baby unwell (NHS, 2015). See our step-by-step guide to preparing baby formula and how to make up a bottle if you’re out for more details.
This page was last reviewed in May 2019.
We support all parents, however they feed their baby. If you have questions, concerns or need support, you can speak to a breastfeeding counsellor by calling our helpline on 0300 330 0700, whether you are exclusively breastfeeding or using formula milk. Breastfeeding counsellors have had extensive training, will listen without judging or criticising and will offer relevant information and suggestions. You can also find more useful articles here.
For more detailed information on the different formula milks that are available, visit First Steps Nutrition Trust.
Crawley H. (2018) Infant milks: a simple guide to infant formula, follow-on formula and other infant milks. First Steps Nutrition Trust, London. Available at : https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59f75004f09ca48694070f3b/t/5b325… 9th May 2019]
Crawley H, Westfield. (2019) Infant milks in the UK: a practical guide for health professionals. First Steps Nutrition Trust, London. Available at : https://static1.squarespace.com/static/59f75004f09ca48694070f3b/t/5d131… 9th May 2019]
Martin C, Ling P, Blackburn G. (2016) Review of infant feeding: key features of breast milk and infant formula. Nutrients. 8(5):279. Available at : https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4882692/ [Accessed 9th May 2019]
NHS. (2015) Guide to bottle feeding. Available at : https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2008/… [Accessed 9th May 2019]
NHS. (2016) Types of formula milk. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/types-of-infant-formul… 9th May 2019]